Digital Technology: A Centerpiece of Future Vertical Lift
The impact of digital transformation on defense technology, using model-based digital design to improve quality and efficiency of production
In this Q&A with Mike Ambrose, Vice President of Enterprise Business Transformation at Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, we discuss the impact of digital transformation on defense technology, how Sikorsky is leveraging years of investment and experience in digital technology on Future Vertical Lift (FVL), and the multiple advantages of this approach.
Q: Digital technology is clearly a centerpiece of the Army’s modernization strategy. Why is this so important to the Army and to Industry as they develop future programs?
A: To put it simply, digital technology enables the Army and our warfighters to adapt faster than ever before to changing environments – and become even more responsive to new threats. It speeds the service’s ability to get new technologies into production. At Sikorsky, we are making this possible by taking every single aspect of a product’s lifecycle and representing it digitally into an integrated digital thread. We are creating physics-based models that replicate how an aircraft will fly and perform before it even is built and flown. We are doing this based on our progress in creating and actually implementing digital simulations of how our products will perform. The models are correlated to wind tunnel and flight test data – then using high performance computers and tools such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), we can very rapidly iterate and mature these models to accurately represent product performance.
This correlated model not only enables us to replicate how a product will perform in the real world, but it also allows us to iterate quickly and perfect the design much faster. In fact, we’ve realized very complex designs that would normally take six months can be completed in six weeks.
Looking at this from the warfighter’s perspective – when an evolving threat or need is identified, we can now evaluate scenarios and capabilities much more quickly, providing options and answers more quickly than in previous generations.
Q: How is Sikorsky translating digital technology innovation experience into its approach for FVL?
A: Sikorsky has made significant investments over the past fifteen years, and particularly over the past six years where Lockheed Martin has invested over $1 billion dollars in our factory and digital transformation. Our digital investments have been rooted on the principles of the “build before you build, fly before you fly” ethos of model-based digital design on established programs like the CH-53K. We’ve proven that we can take what’s represented in a digital model and then build and assemble high-quality parts much more efficiently in a production environment.
We’ve seen the improvements firsthand: in the factory, for example, there’s been a 50 percent reduction in schedule and a 70 percent improvement in quality. Aircraft performance and build that would typically be seen on the 100th aircraft, we now see on the 20th. It’s a remarkable testament to the power and potential of digital technology.
We’ve also used digital technology to advance fly-by-wire technology, which substantially reduces pilot workload and allows customers to have advanced flight control laws. The feedback we’ve gotten has enabled us to incorporate fly-by-wire into six other developmental programs. The result is that the fly-by-wire systems planned for FVL are proven technologies.
"Our digital investments have been rooted on the principles of the 'build before you build, fly before you fly' ethos of model-based digital design on established programs like the CH-53K."Mike Ambrose, Vice President of Enterprise Business Transformation at Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company
Q: Digital technology offers advantages in the form of speed, effectiveness and quality while delivering a substantial benefit in cost savings. How does that work?
A: Digital technologies facilitate significant cost efficiencies. For example, flight testing is traditionally a lengthy and costly component of development programs. There are many facets to transforming a flight test program, but the foundation is implementing a digital testbed.
Through digital testbeds, we can simulate the flight environment and essentially “fly before you fly,” which reduces the real-world flight testing required to prove a base capability.
It doesn’t eliminate the need for traditional flight testing but because we’ve run simulations in thousands of cycles, we’re able to reduce the amount of flight time required to certify or validate an aircraft. In that digital environment, we’re able to fly how the aircraft will actually fly because the correlation between the models and the real-world performance is so good. We’ve already demonstrated the ability to leverage elements of a digital testbed in production.
Fully implementing a digital testbed requires significant investment in high performance computing and developing the processes and talent to effectively manage and process the data. Lockheed Martin recognized those needs and made those investments, allocating part of its $1 billion capital investment in Sikorsky toward high performance computing and simulation processing capability. As a result, we are uniquely positioned to fully integrate the digital thread.
However, processing capability in itself is not enough, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky have also invested in machine learning and AI to determine how to best evaluate and use all the data. Most importantly, we’ve invested in our people. It takes a highly trained and skilled workforce to implement these technologies.
All of this has been a comprehensive multi-year journey that has positioned Sikorsky to now fully implement a physics-based simulation model to support flight testing verification.
Overhead view of the production line at Sikorsky’s Stratford, Connecticut factory.
Q: Sustainment is a critical component of any defense technology program but especially with FVL. How will digital technology transform maintenance moving forward?
A: A sustainment digital twin represents all the parts, elements and capabilities that go into an aircraft. It allows us to understand how we can more quickly pull in capabilities through factors like Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) or software upgrades.
By developing a digital twin – for example, virtual models of our RAIDER X and DEFIANT X – the Army can understand how a platform will behave and implement predictive maintenance. Sikorsky has used digital twins and data analytics to forecast when parts need to be replaced or serviced, giving us the ability to create a very tailored maintenance schedule. Having those insights into every single part of a platform is essential to creating a robust predictive maintenance capability.
We have the ability to derive these insights through aircraft sensors that are feeding real-time data into their digital twins. This opens the door for us to understand exactly what’s happening with an asset during flight – and even deploy technologies like 3-D printing in real time to tailor and print parts that address damage so an aircraft can return to the fray as quickly as possible. That’s also made possible through MOSA-type architectures, which allow the customer – or systems integrator – to replace or fix only the parts of the platform that require it.
Q: Speaking of MOSA, what is Lockheed Martin’s approach to this with respect to digital technology?
A: At its core, MOSA delivers great flexibility to the Army in that they can get the best capability integrated as quickly as possible. Across Lockheed Martin, we have many examples of applying MOSA to various platforms – but perhaps the best example of how we enable it is through our Software Factory.
Our Software Factory enables a very rapid development – or, depending on the need, a very rapid certification qualification – so that software changes or upgrades can be made as soon as the customer expresses the need for them. Having a modular, adaptable, open system allows them to go in and use our products in a very fluid way to counter those evolving threats effectively.
Q: The digital transformation in defense must require transformation in the workforce as well. What is Sikorsky’s approach?
A: The most exciting aspect of digital technology is what it means for our workforce. Our team members can move beyond just one aspect of their specialty to embrace what it truly means to be a model-based systems engineer. In fact, it goes beyond just engineers to encompass every single person who has a role in the development, build, or support of a product – because in a true integrated digital fashion, we’re all connected. Model-based systems engineering enables system thinking and collaboration across the entire digital thread, enabling all of our employees to more fully integrate with our customers and key stakeholders to provide the best value and do so much more quickly, providing more capability.
Additionally, because we’re able now to look at things in real time, across multiple dimensions, we are able to advance technologies at a rate we’ve never seen before. It’s because we’re all thinking as an integrated system.
I credit the diversity of thought and breadth of experience at Lockheed Martin, plus our engagement and inclusion with both suppliers and customers, for this progress. The digital thread starts with our customers, and the requirements they identify as they adapt to a changing world. Just one example of how we perform as a system is our placing factory workers into virtual reality labs to see how parts will come together. We’re passing that information back to our manufacturing and design engineers and taking their feedback to adjust the model. We’re ensuring the supply base is directly involved in parts design and we bring in our customer maintainers to experience and provide feedback on the design. All done in a virtual reality environment, before anything is ever built. It just opens up this completely new and exciting world of technological possibilities that, frankly, didn’t exist even ten years ago!
It is all incredibly exciting and rewarding – seeing the potential for our warfighters and at the same time, realizing the potential for even greater contributions in the future!
First published on July 14, 2022